ISTANBUL Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday accused Kurdish leaders of hypocrisy by ordering jailed militants to go on hunger strike while they feasted on kebabs.
Some 900 people, most of them imprisoned in more than 50 jails, have refused food for 49 days now against a backdrop of increased violence between Turkish troops and the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the United States and European Union list as a terrorist organization.
In his first public remarks on the hunger strike, Erdogan told his parliamentary party the protesters were being manipulated by "merchants of death", a reference to the PKK leadership and its political allies. He said he would not be pressured into giving into their demands for more rights.
"As if the cruelty they commit outside isn't enough, the terrorist organization and groups under its control are now turning to the prisons. It is instructing sympathizers in prison to (join) a death fast to achieve its political demands," he said. "We will not be coerced by hunger strikes."
The PKK has staged some of its bloodiest attacks in more than a decade this year as tensions grow between Turkey and its neighbor Syria. Turkey has accused Syria of arming the PKK to punish Erdogan for criticizing President Bashar al-Assad's bloody crackdown of a 19-month popular uprising.
Turkish and Syrian forces have been shelling each other's territory at the border for the past month in reprisal attacks.
Erdogan said members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party were carrying out the PKK's wishes in encouraging Kurds in jails to protest.
"On one hand you are eating lamb kebab, on the other you are telling those in prison, 'Die on hunger strike,'" he said.
Erdogan has repeatedly said the BDP is tied to the PKK, but the party denies an outright link, saying instead the two groups share common support.
The hunger strikers are mostly serving sentences for membership of the PKK or an allied group, the Ankara-based Human Rights Association has said.
The inmates are demanding better conditions for Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK's incarcerated leader, the right to testify in courtrooms in Kurdish, their first language and for the government to cease arresting and prosecuting Kurdish activists.
The PKK has called the strike an "honorable resistance" but does openly claim to be behind the action.
The PKK took up arms against Turkey in 1984 demanding self-rule for the mainly Kurdish southeast. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict. It has stepped up violence in recent months with a series of attacks on military targets.
While Erdogan's government has introduced several reforms to grant greater Kurdish cultural rights since taking power a decade ago, it has also detained and prosecuted thousands of Kurdish lawyers, academics, activists and politicians in recent years on suspicion they have links with the PKK.
The hunger strikers are consuming sugar, water and vitamins which would prolong their lives and the protest by weeks.
But Mehmet Emin Aktar, head of the bar association in Diyarbakir, the southeast's largest Kurdish city, said in a statement that prisoners could start dying at any moment.
Police in Diyarbakir detained a dozen or so protesters who announced a "day of resistance" and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, security sources said. At least one person was taken to hospital with injuries resulting from the skirmishes.
Parents also kept children home from school, and businesses shuttered shop windows to protest the government's handling of the hunger strike. Garbage piled up on street corners as city workers refused to work.
In central Istanbul, police fired teargas canisters and sprayed water cannons to break up a small demonstration by supporters of the hunger strikers.
Turkey has a history of deadly prison hunger strikes.
A hunger strike that began in 2000 claimed the lives of 122 people, and hundreds more were permanently crippled. Another 30 prisoners and two prison guards were killed when security forces stormed jails to end the hunger strike, an effort organized by far-leftists to protest isolation in Turkish cells.
(Additional reporting by Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir and Osman Orsal in Istanbul; Writing by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Jon Hemming)